Was Barack Obama Sr. ‘eased’ out of Harvard, and America, for dating white women?
This morning, the Arizona Independent, a weekly paper, published the file kept by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (as the agency was then called) on a Kenyan student by the name of Barack Hussein Obama Sr. So far, the file, obtained via F.O.I.A., has mostly gotten attention for further substantiating the obvious: that Obama Sr. fathered a son who was born in Hawaii.
But as someone who has spent a lot of time studying post-colonial Africa—and particularly the fascinating and emblematic story of our president's tangled lineage—I was most interested in how the file did shed some light on a real mystery, the one that inspired Barack Obama Jr. to write a book about his absent father, one of his earliest steps into public life. Why did the president's father leave his son, and eventually America, returning to Hawaii for just a single childhood visit?
I think the file proves, fairly conclusively, that racism drove the president's father from the United States. I went back and forth a bit with Ben Smith (whose blog post brought this file to my attention) over whether "racism" is really the right word for the bureaucratic attitudes and actions these documents contain. There's no use of slurs or harsh language, certainly. What I think the documents reveal, though, is a subtle, institutionalized conspiracy that in a way seems more insidious than overt cross-burning racism, because almost surely none of its participants thought of their actions as discriminatory at all. In that sense, the file is an instructive artifact, not just of our president's biography, but of our nation's history of conflicted attitudes about race, foreign cultures, intermarriage and sex.
Hard as it may be to believe today, it seems clear from a close reading of the the file that the president's father was driven from this country because of his messy personal life. And reading between the lines, it's not hard to see a subtext of miscegenation.
First, a little historical background: the elder Barack Hussein Obama arrived in the United States in 1959, via an exchange program known colloquially in Kenya as the "Tom Mboya airlift," after the politician who sponsored it, a Luo tribesman of his. (These sorts of ethnic connections matter in Africa.)
During his first year of studies at the University of Hawaii, Obama took a Russian-language class where he met Stanley Ann Dunham, the president's mother. The earliest non-routine memo in Obama's file is a 1961 memo in which the I.N.S. is warned by a foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii (a "Mrs. McCabe"), who informed the authorities that Obama had married Dunham. Further, the informant noted that he had been "running around with several girls" and had been "warned about his playboy ways." He had been confronted by school officials about another wife he had back in Kenya, from whom he claimed to be customarily divorced.
I have no intention of arguing that the elder Obama conducted himself honorably in his relations with women. However, having lived in East Africa, his explanation rings familiar to me. Even today, it is common for a well-traveled young person like him to have a first wife back in his home village. We call this "polygamy;" they see it as moving on with life.
First marriages fizzle out in Africa, as they do everywhere else. The difference is that culturally, legal divorce is very frowned upon: It's viewed as shirking financial and familial responsibilities. Epidemiologists, who have studied this cultural pattern because of its impact on the spread of H.I.V., often say that Africans tend to have "concurrent" relationships, while Americans have "consecutive" ones. That's a wild generalization, but the point is that Obama Sr. would not have viewed his first marriage back in Kenya as something disreputable. It clearly became worthy of investigation to school and immigration officials, though, after he started fooling around with white women.
After the 1961 report about Obama's marriage to Dunham, the I.N.S. resolved to keep eye on him. Polygamy is not a charge meriting deportation, the memo notes, adding that "If the subject were convicted of bigamy we might get a deportation charge but not before." But it recommends that Obama be "closely questioned before another [visa] extension is granted—and denial be considered." This sets the tone of the rest of the file, throughout which the issue of his American wife back in Hawaii keeps popping up.
The birth of Obama's mixed-race son—the one who would go on to be president—is duly noted, and then things go quiet for a couple of years. During this time, the president's parents separated and Obama Sr. went to Harvard to study for a graduate degree. The relationship went on as a long-distance proposition for a little while, though it was over by Jan. 1964, when Dunham filed for a divorce that Obama did not contest.
The same month as the divorce, another note appears in Obama's file. There seems to have been some kind of affair with a Kenyan exchange student (the file indicates a high school student, but that doesn't necessarily mean a minor—African children often started school quite late in the 1950s and '60s). The Unitarian Universalist Service, which had sponsored the woman's scholarship, is up in arms about the relationship and an unpermitted overseas trip. "The suspicion exists," says a memo, "that she may have gone to London for [redacted]."
We don't know what the couple was suspected to have done, but since this was a decade prior to Roe v. Wade, we can guess. A related memo reports that an informant considers Obama to be a "very slippery character."
Maybe he was. But again, what the I.N.S. really wants to know about is the elder Obama's situation with his wife back in Hawaii. The authorities get in touch with Harvard and ask officials there to press him on his marital status. Obama tells the school that he is separated from Ann Dunham, who is reported to be now living in the Philippines. (Though that's what the report says, it's inaccurate: Dunham was still residing in Hawaii in 1964, where she met her second husband, who did eventually take the family to Indonesia.)
In a handwritten note, the agent says a school official promises to talk to the student, "re his marital problems." Clearly, Harvard has decided that it has a problem with Obama's personal life.
In May 1964, Harvard gets back to the I.N.S. and reports that while the student has passed all his exams, the university is "going to try to cook something up to ease him out." The school follows up with a letter telling Obama that they don't have any more money to fund his scholarship and suggesting he finish up his thesis back in Kenya. Without the scholarship funding, his student visa won't be renewed. A follow-up memo says that Obama "was not satisfied" with the decision and has appealed.
Still, it seems that Obama can't stay out of trouble. In July, there's a handwritten note that says someone has called to complain that her 27-year-old daughter has agreed to marry him. This is almost certainly the mother of Ruth Nidesand, who met Obama's father at Harvard and eventually became his third wife. Again, another white woman. The I.N.S. investigates and determines that Obama had already departed for Kenya. The last note of interest in the file is a follow-up report—once more, circumstances strongly suggest it came from Nidesand's family—complaining that their daughter had eloped to Nairobi despite knowing that Obama had a couple of other wives floating around. The memo says there's nothing the government can do, since the woman was an adult and went of her own free will.
Again, the very fact that the memo exists and was placed in the immigration file—which presumably would have been consulted if Obama ever wanted to come back to live in America—is an indication of the seriousness with which the authorities at the time viewed the nature of his supposed misconduct.
It's clear that Obama Sr. marked himself as an undesirable from the very moment he married a white woman, and the racist subtext is pretty overwhelming throughout the documents. Sure, he seems to have behaved like a cad. But ask yourself this: if the male student involved was, say, French, is it conceivable that the U.S. government would have spent so much time investigating his romantic entanglements with various Americans? And, it seems clear, not-so-subtly nudging the Harvard authorities to cut off his scholarship? The answer to these questions is self-evident.
We know that Barack Obama Sr. died young, disappointed about many things. One of them, I have to imagine, was that his education at Harvard was cut short. Until now, it has typically been said that he "gave up" his doctoral studies, but this file makes it clear that he was never given a choice about leaving Cambridge. Who knows how his life might have turned out if he had been allowed to stay? Maybe he would have become an economics professor at some Northeastern liberal arts college, maybe he would have played a little more of a role in his son's life, and maybe his son would have never written Dreams From My Father, which would have been too bad, because it is a fantastic book and an unparalleled source of insight into the president's personal history and character.
For all the personal anguish described in that memoir, things turned out just fine for Barack Obama Jr. But we can't say the same for his father, who ended his life a disillusioned alcoholic, believing that he had been the victim of immense injustices. From reading this file, I think he had a pretty good case against the U.S. government.
Andrew Rice is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.